Home Editorial OPINION: Why Do High School Students No Longer Need the SAT

OPINION: Why Do High School Students No Longer Need the SAT

OPINION: Why Do High School Students No Longer Need the SAT
For many qualified students, optional testing policies relieve a major application barrier. (Photo: iStockphoto / NNPA)

Students will be well served to continue asking questions like, “Is the investment of time and/or money to prepare for this test worth it?” this year and in the short term. Is taking the test safe and beneficial? And, does submitting my scores increase the likelihood that I’ll help my application or increase my chances of receiving a scholarship?

by BlackPressUSA

The AFRO | Akil Bello and Harry Feder

College admissions are changing dramatically. The pandemic has accelerated an already rapid trend in which colleges are reconsidering the importance of SAT and ACT scores in the admissions process. Many colleges have either stopped considering test scores entirely (test blind/free) or have given students the option of including test scores as part of their applications (test-optional).

While the shift in testing policy may appear new to some, it has been underway for more than 50 years. Prior to the pandemic, nearly half of all bachelor degree-granting colleges had test-optional or test-free policies.

More than 700 colleges have adopted a test-optional or test-free policy since 2020, prompted by the difficulty of access to testing due to COVID but also prompted — and certainly sustained by — research on the minimal value and detrimental impact of standardized test scores.

For those applying in 2023, more than 1,800 colleges (roughly 80% of bachelor’s degree-granting colleges) currently have test-optional or test-free policies. These universities include Hampton University, CalTech, and Michigan State University.

New testing policies, combined with changing demographics and the pandemic’s effects, have altered the traditional calculus of college admissions.

Some colleges have received significantly more applications than others. Some families and students are unsure about the advantage that a high test score provides, while others are relieved that they do not have to worry about testing. Some test prep companies are concerned about dwindling clientele, while others are relieved to see the end of over testing and test abuse. Some college counsellors are relieved that they can recommend their strong students who are poor test takers to colleges that would have rejected them due to a lower test score, while others lament the loss of a potential advantage for the students they serve who test above their in-school performance.

Uncertainty comes with change. Change will benefit some while harming others. In this case, wealthy White males with college-educated parents have historically benefited from testing, and changing policies threaten that advantage. Those who have traditionally been disadvantaged by testing will feel relieved if the role of tests in admissions is reduced.

“There was a misconception that the number you got determined where you’d go to college,” Star-Angel Oppong, a senior at Freedom High School in Virginia who is currently applying to colleges, said. “The test instilled in me a great deal of fear that I would not be successful unless I performed well on it.”

According to Oppong, some adults in her life, both intentionally and unintentionally, conveyed to her that a student who “didn’t do well on the test, they might as well not go to college at all.”

That has changed now that tests are optional.

The widespread implementation of these policies has increased opportunity. Students who might have been discouraged from applying to certain schools simply because their scores were lower than the published averages for those schools are now applying without regard for their scores.

“It was a relief not to have to take a test and not have the test be the reason why you didn’t get into college, Amily Sylla a first-year student at Virginia Commonwealth University, said. After witnessing her sister’s difficulties in preparing for and taking the SAT the previous year, Ms. Sylla was relieved to forego the preparation and testing process and devote her time to more important things.

Data from Common App, the organization that runs a popular application by the same name used by over 900 colleges, show a smoother path created. Since the 2019-2020 application season, Common App members have seen a more than 20% increase in applications, with underrepresented students seeing the greatest increase.

The drop in submitted scores is even more dramatic than the increase in applications. In 2022, only 5% of Common App member schools required SAT or ACT test scores, and only 48% of applicants submitted them.

While these new policies reduce barriers for many, they can also increase uncertainty. Some students and supporters are less confident in their ability to predict the outcome of the admissions process.

This anxiety is especially noticeable among those who have long relied on test scores as the “key” to admissions and scholarships. Despite college assurances, test makers, test prep companies, and independent college counsellors have contributed to the anxiety by instilling fears that not testing creates a disadvantage in admissions or access to scholarships, even at test-optional colleges.

“Many students and parents didn’t trust that they would really get a fair evaluation if they didn’t submit a test score,” says Ericka M. Jackson, Senior Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Wayne State University. We spent a lot of time as college admissions offices explaining what test optional means at our institution and assuring students, counsellors, and parents that students would not be disadvantaged if they applied test optional.”

Since 2020, test publishers College Board and ACT have been especially aggressive in marketing their tests as the key to “standing out” in the application process, implying that taking the test is necessary for admissions and “merit” scholarships.

However, this narrative is deceptive, if not outright false.

Candice Mackey, a college counsellor at Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, said that “although all Cal-States and UCs are test-free, my students and families are ‘programmed’ for testing. It can be difficult to persuade them otherwise that test-optional means test-optional.”

Making matters worse is the national media’s emphasis on highly rejective colleges, which account for less than 4% of all colleges. News reports and prep company advertisements overemphasis test scores as the reason for admission or rejection, despite the fact that these institutions almost always review applications holistically, taking into account many factors other than test scores. This causes families to place undue emphasis on testing.

Even in California, where public universities will not consider test scores even if they are submitted, the legacy of requiring scores for the past 50 years casts a shadow on the current process. “There is a lot of re-educating, explaining, and reframing what test-optional means and how testing factors into admissions,” Mackey observes.

The lived experience of applicants reveals applicants’ confusion about how these policies work in practice. Wendy Jefferies, a knowledgeable graduate admissions coach, and her daughter, now a first-year student at Indiana University, struggled through what amounted to two parallel admissions processes, one with and one without scores.

Jefferies expressed the anxiety that many families experience. “We didn’t know what a good or bad test score was,” she explained.

Jefferies and her daughter, who had a 27 ACT score (better than nearly 90% of test takers nationally) and a 3.5 GPA, decided to apply to HBCUs with testing and to Predominantly White Institutions without testing (PWIs).

This strategy was heavily influenced by popular narratives that suggested that scores would provide access to scholarships at HBCUs in ways that PWIs would not. Jefferies and her daughter decided not to waste any more time or energy on testing after falling short of her target ACT score twice. Here’s how her student performed:

Colleges must not only deal with the difficulty of educating a public accustomed to submitting scores, but they must also frequently adjust their internal policies as their applicant pools shift from 100% to less than half submitting scores.

Jackson says several adjustments were made in their policy between the first and second test optional cycles based on feedback from applicants and counsellors, saying her institution was “pleased and knew that the decision we made, along with hundreds of other institutions, was in the best interest of students and removed a significant barrier to higher education, which was the ability to test. We quickly discovered, however, that providing a test-optional pathway was insufficient, at least for the students we served (many of whom attended under-resourced schools and were physically separated from the support they used to have in school because they were all learning remotely).”

Many high school students have benefited from the return to school because they are reconnected with place-based resources that were previously difficult to access during remote learning. However, the disparity in college policies poses a challenge to even the best-resourced college counselling office.

“It’s understandable that students (and parents) were perplexed by so many institutions’ test-optional policies,” Jackson said. Some were test-free or test-flexible, while others were test-optional.”

Seniors applying this year and next will need to keep an eye on college websites and fairtest.org to keep up with changing college policies. However, applicants must also take colleges at their word about what is important in the process. Colleges are responding to research, the current environment, and students’ needs by updating their policies as needed. This means that there may be more changes in the coming years. College admission is shifting away from what Mackey refers to as a “institution-centered” process.

According to Jackson, test-optional has caused a “seismic shift” for both colleges and students. “As I enter year three of a mostly test-optional admissions cycle, my advisement with students and families in this particular area begins with the student first and their profile, followed by the institution second, leading me to believe test-optional policy and practice is much more student-centered, Mackey says.

Of course, “student-centered” considerations do not relieve applicants of the pressure to meet other competitive admissions criteria for a given institution, such as grades, extracurricular activities, and so on.

However, for many qualified students, the optional policies remove a significant application barrier.

Unfortunately, students will still have to consider how and when to engage in testing and test preparation until every college follows California’s lead and removes test scores from all aspects of its process.

Students will be well served to continue asking questions like, “Is the investment of time and/or money to prepare for this test worth it?” this year and in the short term. Is taking the test safe and beneficial? And, does submitting my scores increase the likelihood that I’ll help my application or increase my chances of receiving a scholarship?

The answer was no for students like Sylla. She believed that her strong high school performance and activities better reflected who she was and who she wanted colleges to consider. Preparing for the SAT or ACT was a waste of her time, and not testing did not prevent her from achieving excellent results. Sylla claims that she was not only admitted to VCU and received scholarships, but that “I got a lot, actually.”

FairTest’s Senior Director of Advocacy and Advancement is Akil Bello. He is a former CEO of a test prep company, a teacher, and a nationally recognized expert on educational access.

FairTest’s Executive Director is Harry Feder. For 22 years, he taught history at Beacon School and Urban Academy Laboratory High School in New York City public schools. Prior to that, he worked as a private litigation attorney.

The opinions on this page are those of the writers and not necessarily those of the AFRO or BlackPressUSA. Send letters to The Afro-American • 145 W. Ostend Street Ste 600, Office #536, Baltimore, MD 21230 or fax to 1-877-570-9297 or e-mail to editor@afro.com

This article originally appeared in The Afro.


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